Bentley's Bandstand: Johnny Winter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Meklit Hadero

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billbentley110BY BILL BENTLEY

Johnny Winter, Live At The Fillmore East 10/3/70, Collector’s Choice Music

There aren’t many longer or stranger trips in music than Johnny Winter’s. He began playing guitar very young, growing up near the Texas Gulf Coast in the mid-’50s. He and brother Edgar Winter on keyboards and saxophone formed a band called the White Plague, playing go-go clubs in Houston before the guitarist embarked for Austin to play blues full-time. It took a year or two, and while Winter nearly starved he got his musical wish. The audiences in the Texas capitol loved what they heard, and found it hard to believe such stripped-down sounds were coming from the thin white man. A Rolling Story story in fall 1968 took Johnny Winter onto the national stage and before you could say Muddy Waters the Texan was playing at the Woodstock festival and recording for Columbia Records. His style was deeply soulful, with a gritty voice and relentlessly fluid guitaronics. There simply was no one like Winter in the late ’60s. When he rolled into the Fillmore East in late 1970 he had just formed a new alliance with the McCoys, featuring rocker Rick Derringer. Blues eyebrows were raised, but the band worked. The boys were rocking and expanded their sound for the masses. This live recording captures the power of the cross-fertilization, but also shows the limits of where it could go. Blues ballads like “It’s My Own Fault” burn, allowing Winter room to demonstrate what the media heat was all about. Others, like “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” raise a flag some roadblocks were coming up. The sound on the disc is only fair, and while the energy is high the inspiration shows cracks. By the time the ’70s were heading towards home, the Texan was producing hellacious Muddy Waters records and bearing down on the blues again. Johnny Winter is still riding the back roads doing just that, showing this music is a lifetime affair, and for true believers there is no escape.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Eleanora Fagan: To Billie With Love, DDB Records

Dee Dee Bridgewater is bad to the bone. It takes big-time talent to even attempt a tribute album to Billie Holiday, no matter how you want to play that card. First, there is simply no way to top Holiday herself–period. The pathos and pain Lady Day put into her music will never be equaled. Hell, it’s hard enough to understand it. Listening to those original recordings is like daring yourself not to fall apart. Some days you win, some days you lose. And by the time a collection like Lady In Satin came around in the mid-’50s, forget it. The paint was peeling from the walls, and the poor woman was dying right in front of her audience’s ears and eyes. But it didn’t stop Holiday from trying to open her soul for all to see. She paid for it with her life, really, and we can still hear the absolute greatness that lived inside her heart and how much she wanted to share it. Now along comes Dee Dee Bridgewater, who is surely one of the great singers alive, and after playing Holiday on stages in London and Paris has recorded an album of some of those classic songs. Being a very smart woman, this is a savvy vocalist’s own take on these tunes. From the album cover itself, it’s obvious Bridgewater will be taking her own road. With a shaved head and her face and body painted what looks like gold, only by the large gardenia sitting above her left ear is Holiday even alluded to. Good. As the album beings with “Lady Sings the Blues,” Dee Dee Bridgewater is ready to show us all of herself, by using some of the greatest jazz songs of our time to do just that. Her voice can go from the edge of a razor to a sheet of silk with very little effort, letting us in on what true artistry is all about. If there was ever a time when she tried to sound like Billie Holiday, those days are over. As “All of Me,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “Lover Man,” “You’ve Changed” and all the others unfold, it is transfixing to let the music overwhelm us. Mention must be made of the quartet here, since they play such a prominent role in the results. Pianist and arranger Edsel Gomez gets it perfect, keeping everything simple but deep–a key element for greatness. The rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash is surely one of the best in jazz, and prove it on every song. Then there’s the unstoppable James Carter on soprano sax, bass clarinet and alto flute. He kicks the album up several notches by starting a fire on every solo he takes, and matches the passion of Bridgewater’s voice with unerring power. By the end, the devastating “Strange Fruit,” we have all reached that place of transcendence. Billie Holiday is alive inside us, but so is Dee Dee Bridgewater. Hooray.

Meklit Hadero, On A Day Like This..., Porto Franco Records

The perfect triangle of influences comes together on this unforgettable debut. Born in Ethiopia, Meklit Hadero has the lilting grace of African music in everything she sings, and there is the timelessness of that ancient land in the way Hadero puts deep beauty in these songs. Moving to Brooklyn with her family as a child, she found the urban energy of that city, which added an edge to the rhythms of originals like “Float and Fall” and “Walls,” and moved her sound closer to the United States. Then it was on to the boho playground of San Francisco, and all the eclectic playfulness of that city. An ethereal vibration came into the mix that completed the picture, and Meklit Hadero now emerges as a new valued voice in the world of possibilities awaiting her. What really makes On A Day Like This… so arresting is the precious balance between her vision and the way she mixes all the eclecticism from a rich past, and makes both come together right on time. An extra bonus is an uplifting cover of “Feeling Good,” from “The Smell of the Greasepaint…the Roar of the Crowd.” From Anthony Newley to Nina Simone to Hadero, the classic is a fine test of a vocalist’s abilities to express their emotions full-tilt. All three make their mark in different ways. And Meklit Hadero is now carrying the flame into the future.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.